He was somewhere north of fifty, with a tanned face, chiseled jawline, and salt and pepper hair. He saw me before I saw him. I heard a voice speaking in Italian and turned around, my face a question mark. He switched to English with no discernible effort. “You are not Italian?” He asked. “No,” I admitted. He smiled, taking me in. “Ah. American. But you look Italian.”
I knew it was a line, but I blushed anyway. His eyes followed mine to the shelf of leather journals I’d been browsing, and he lifted one up to show me. It was dark purple, the lambskin soft and pliable to the touch. “It’s beautiful,” I said.
“Thank you. Is it for you, or a gift?”
“For me,” I confessed. “I’m a writer.”
“Ah, lovely. When the book is full, you can replace the pages without a problem. But this cover will last forever, I promise you. I made it myself.”
I bought it – happily – bid him farewell, and wandered off through Florence’s central market to find my friends. I knew I would never see him again, but something about the man who sold me the journal stayed with me, as though a technicolor photograph of our encounter had been imprinted on my memory. In Italy, it seemed that even a simple business transaction could take on a romantic, almost cinematic quality.
A day later, we walked Via dei Fori Imperiali, a promenade lined with ruins that cut through the center of Rome. The sky was blue, the sun surprisingly warm. When we reached the Coliseum, the sight of the ancient, towering structure caused a shooting sensation to travel up my legs and set small fires inside of my arms. Vertigo was the last thing I expected to feel – not here – but suddenly, there it was. I decided not to plunge into the panic that was sure to come if I pressed forward, and instead stayed behind to write. I carved out a space on a dirty cement ledge outside of the entrance, and began to scribble in a cheap paper notebook, occasionally pausing to glance up through the Coliseum’s arching, open windows and contemplate the sky. My head swirled with images, information, and the dulling edges of jet lag, and I craved nothing more than a respite from the constant assault of voices: the hustlers, the street vendors, the people everywhere who wanted something, be it money, information, a photograph.
It was my fifth day in Italy. I’d traveled from New York on an overnight flight to Heathrow, followed by a morning flight to Venice, to celebrate my friend Jen’s birthday. On that first, cold, damp day trudging along the canals – a day that followed a long, sleepless night – I quickly realized I’d grown accustomed to traveling solo, and the sudden need to negotiate meal times, to calculate the division of the check, and to slow my stride to match the pace of the group required an adjustment I wasn’t sure how to navigate.
So, when I could, I set off on my own. My decision to skip the Coliseum had been the third time in five days that I’d peeled off from the group, and I knew it wouldn’t be the last. It was knowledge that made me feel vaguely guilty – after all, this wasn’t my trip – but now that I was in Italy, I couldn’t deny the draw toward my usual manner of traveling: avoiding tourist sites and crowds in favor of wandering city streets like a gypsy, pausing to browse in shops and linger over a notebook in a café or a bar.
The next night – our last in Rome – capped another long day that began with a three hour tour of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica, and continued on to several city highlights including the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. By the time dinner rolled around, it was late and I was ill-tempered. We had an early wake up call – Jen’s mother was returning to Chicago and the rest of us were traveling on to the Amalfi Coast – and the wait was long at the restaurant recommended by our hotel. We debated back and forth for a good twenty minutes, when suddenly, a busy waiter hustled over, threw down a yellow table cloth, and set a table for five. Decision made.
As we tried to decipher the Italian menu and watched with wonder as two women perched in a window seat hand rolled pasta for everyone to see – part of the draw of the restaurant, Osteria Da Fortunata – one of the members of our group, Erica, raised her glass and wished us all a Happy Thanksgiving. And then she announced, “Order whatever you want. Dinner is on me.”
Romans had been wishing us “Happy Thanksgiving” all day, but being thousands of miles from home in a country that didn’t celebrate the holiday, it scarcely felt real. That is until Erica said it, and made an offer of generosity that instantly diffused the tension of the long day, the fatigue, the hunger, and the stress of coordinating the logistics of transportation to our next destination. Suddenly, we were just five people who’d shared this journey and now sat around a table on a lovely late November evening in Rome, about to share one last thing: a meal.
And after everything I’d felt the last six days, the only thing left to feel was grateful.
Until next time, friends.